Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Castle of Blood (1964)


Italian Title: Danza Macabra
French Title: Danse Macabre
US/ UK Title: Castle of Blood
Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
Uncredited Director: Sergio Corbucci
Writers: Jean Grimaud (Gianni Grimaldi?) & Gordon Wiles Jr. (Bruno Corbucci? Also possible uncredited work by Sergio Corbucci)
Original Music: Riz Ortalani (Credited as "Ritz Ortalani" in the Woolner Bros US release)
Vulsinia Film/ Ulysse Productions/ Giovanni Addessi Produzione Cinematografica
An Italy/ France co-production


Determined reporter Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) tracks Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli) to a quiet pub on one of his rare visits to London. Poe, missing the traditional goatee beard, is reciting one of his poems to an eager fan, Lord Blackwood (Umberto Raho) and is not too keen on the idea of an interview. Together they discuss the reality of the supernatural with varying degrees of scepticism, until Lord Blackwood suggested that Alan might want to put his money where his mouth is and try spending the night in his castle. Being an impoverished journalist (is there any other kind?) he is unable to make the £100 wager, but can at least offer a tenner. Poe is intrigued, and offers to come on the coach journey to the castle where they can have that interview Allan has been so desperate for. It is not exactly clear where this castle is, although the implication is that we are on the outskirts of London, given that the film's opening credits appear over images of the London skyline, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben.

Selection of screen grabs from the Synapse DVD release
When they arrive at the castle, we are not given a wide angle view, meaning that the size or architecture is never fully revealed. We instead only glimpse parts of the outside through the overgrowth or behind evil-looking tree branches which seem to reach down and attack Allan as he walks through the family cemetery to the entrance. What parts of the castle are revealed suggest a European, Mediterranean, design rather than the more usual British castle we might expect, but it is difficult to tell. One assumes that the entire façade was also part of the set rather than out on location, hence no wide shots, although a matte shot was surely not out of the question.

Alan (Georges Rivière) meets Elisabeth (Barbara Steele) for the first time
Once inside Allan locates a candlestick, lights all the candles in the hallway and starts exploring. Things start to get supernatural almost as soon as the door closes behind him. Ghostly, old-fashioned waltz music echoes down the hall, and Allan traces the source to a closed door, through which we also hear sounds of merriment. When he opens the door the music and the laughter stop, and the room is of course empty. He sits down and begins to play the same tune on the harpsichord, as though it was familiar to him. An outstretched hand touches his shoulder, and he turns, startled, to see the beautiful Elisabeth (Barbara Steele). Relieved that the castle is not uninhabited after all, he instantly falls in love with Elisabeth, the sister of Lord Blackwood, and follows her up to his room. He soon meets some of the castle's other inhabitants as well, including Julia (Margrete Robsahm), who I think is her sister-in-law, an unnamed gardener (probably Giovanni Cianfriglia), and the strange Doctor Carmus (Arturo Dominici), who is performing experiments involving blood and the prolongation of life after physical death through sheer will. He demonstrates this theory to Alan by chopping the head off a live snake, an early example of killing real animals on camera in Italian exploitation cinema which would reach controversial heights in the following decade.

Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele) wearing one of the lowest-cut dresses known to man
Although initially unwilling to accept Elisabeth's assertion that she is in fact dead, Alan slowly comes to learn that he is trapped in this house, as on each Halloween (or more accurately at midnight going into All Souls Day) those who have died there are forced to relive their dying moments over and over again. Alan gets to witness the Elisabeth's husband being murdered by the jealous gardener, before he too is killed by Julia, who is then stabbed by Elisabeth. He also sees the grisly fates of other visitors, including a honeymooning couple and Doctor Camus himself, who is haunted by a breathing corpse in the castle's crypt. It is possible that this cycle was caused by the doctor's experiments, as they evidently need new blood every year to enable them to keep this tragic afterlife going, in some sort of quasi-scientific explanation which feels more like one of H.P. Lovecraft or Nathaniel Hawthorn's ghost stories than that of Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli) and Lord Blackwood (Umberto Raho)
discover Alan's (Georges Rivière) upright corpse
Having spoiled the plot so far, I may as well go ahead and tell you that Alan does not make it out alive, despite his desperate efforts, being stabbed by the gate as he closes it behind him. Instead of winning the bet he joins the ever-growing family of spooks. Lord Blackwood arrives the next morning and duly collects his £10 from the dead body. One has to question Lord Blackwood here, who clearly knows what is going on in his castle, and the certainty of death for anyone who visits, yet he still willingly encourages people to visit. He even invited a couple to honeymoon there! What a guy.

According to Wikipedia, one of the only real sources I can find for any production information, this film exists because producer Giovanni Addessi wanted Sergio Corbucci to make another film to reuse his sets for the comedy The Monk of Monza (Il monaco di Monza, 1963, Sergio Corbucci, Italy: Giovanni Addessi Produzione Cinematografica, Globe Films International). Corbucci commissioned a script from that film's writers, his brother Bruno and Gianni Grimaldi, but scheduling conflicts meant that the film was given to his friend Antonio Margheriti instead. Historian Danny Shipka asserts that Margheriti shot Castle of Blood in 1962 in just fifteen days using a three camera system to save time. This makes this his first gothic horror film, coming before his better known The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964 (but shot in 1963) Italy: Cinegai S.p.A.) and Horror Castle, aka The Virgin of Nuremberg (La vergine di Norimberga, 1963, Italy: Atlantica Cinematografica Produzione Films). Apparently Corbucci did come in to shoot the scene where Elisabeth is stabbed by the gardener in a jealous rage in front of Alan because of the time constraints. 

Elisabeth is naturally horrified by all the murders
Castle of Blood was cut down for its English-language release, judging by the 35mm US print included as a bonus feature on the Nightmare Castle (Amanti d'oltretomba, 1965, Mario Caiano, Cinematografica EmmeCi) blu ray from Severin. A longer cut incorporating additional material in French, with English subtitles, was put out by Synapse on DVD about fifteen years ago. The differences are significant: 

In the opening scene Edgar Allan Poe's recital of "Berenice" for Lord Blackwood is longer and more graphic. Later, in the carriage to Blackwood's castle, we hear more of the interview, where Poe discusses his feelings with Alan about the poetry and melancholia of death. 

When Elisabeth goes with the her lover into the stables, the dialogue is extended as he tells her that if she goes back to her husband he will kill her. The camera then pushes forward into a close-up of her face as she initially resists, then becomes ecstatic as he kisses her body and moves downward, the suggestion being that he is as skilled with his tongue as he is with his hands. This also explains why he turns up and murders her husband whilst they are in bed later.

Elisabeth (Barbara Steele) enjoying the attentions of the gardener
When the big multiple-murder scene arrives, we also have some additional information which explains why Elisabeth stabbed Julia. After killing the gardener, Julia tries to comfort Elisabeth, revealing her own romantic intentions. Elisabeth exclaims "I don't want you, you hear? I despise you!" Julia is all over Elisabeth, trying to make love to her and explaining that she couldn't bear to see another at her side. That is why Elisabeth stabs her, because of her revulsion at this attempted sapphic seduction. Barbara Steele later claimed:

"That scene was terrible. My costar didn't want to kiss me... she said she couldn't kiss a woman. Margheriti was furious. He told her to just pretend she was kissing her Ugo [her husband, actor Ugo Tognazzi] and not Barbara! I don't know what it looked like on screen; I never saw the picture." (Interviewed for French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique, quoted in Shipka, D. 2011, Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980, McFarland: Jefferson, NC, p. 42)

Towards the end of the film Alan witnesses the arrival of a newly-married couple on their honeymoon (possibly played by Johnny Waters and Merry Powers, names in the credits but which sound made-up. The woman may actually have been Sylvia Sorrente.). They are indeed merry, and waste no time heading up to the bedroom. In the US print we see her start to undress whilst her husband goes to investigate the strange noise from down the corridor. In the French print we see her undress in front of the fire, where she exposes her breasts and walks towards the camera topless.

Sylvia Sorrente undresses in front of the fire whilst her husband is
murdered by a ghost outside
One last possible difference is that I'm sure we see more of the spike piercing Allan's neck than in the US print, but no more than a split second. Assuming that the film was shot in various languages, but given that the leading lady was English, one would imagine that it was always the intention for the film to be distributed internationally in English. It is therefore a pity that the censorship seems to have been made during post-production, with a French release containing the stronger material whilst the English-language dubbing only happening for the family-friendly version. What we really need is for someone to source a French negative and release the film with the full French language track and subtitles, which would be less distracting than the language changing every time the extra material comes along.

The ice-cold beauty of Julia (Margrete Robsahm)
There is one notable mistake in both prints of Castle of Blood, perhaps revealing the quick turnaround of the production: in the opening scene, when Alan goes into the pub, he hovers briefly behind the door before closing it and going down the stairs. As the door swings shut, we see reflected a man wearing what looks like a white lab coat holding a small device which gives out a little puff of smoke. Evidently he was there to help maintain the foggy London atmosphere, but there is no way of not noticing it. And if it's obvious when watching the film on a TV, it must have been even clearer, and the source of much hilarity, when witnessed on a huge cinema screen. Thankfully, as this happens early, it is forgotten once the action begins.

Castle of Blood was picked up for international distribution in 1964 by the Woolner Brothers, former drive-in owners who specialised in 'B' pictures. This film was released on a double-bill with Hercules in the Haunted World (1961, Mario Bava/ Franco Prosperi, Italy: SpA Cinematografica), which would have been a fun night at any drive-in.

Elisabeth and Alan share an intimate moment before things get weird
Castle of Blood received an 'X' certificate from the BBFC in March 1965 following some cuts. I have not been able to ascertain what those cuts were, but at some point in the future I hope to visit their archive and look at all their Margheriti records. Presumably these were cuts in addition to the cuts already made during post-production. I would assume that the snake-decapitation shot was one of those removed. The film was distributed by British Lion, who were a major independent film company at that time. For some reason it appears that the film was not actually exhibited in the UK until mid-1967, receiving a brief mention in The Daily Cinema in July and an unimpressed review in Monthly Film Bulletin in September.

Initially praising the effectiveness of Riccardo Pallottini's camerawork, the reviewer claims this effectiveness is ruined:

"Partly by Ortolani's cliché-ridden score which makes every surprise twist predictable, partly by the heroine's ludicrous Charles Addams make-up, partly by the wooden quality of the dubbed dialogue ('I'm very attracted to you, my dear.'). Essentially, though, the film's weakness lies in its plot; Poe chose to leave this story unpublished during his lifetime, and one can't help feeling that his choice was a sensible one." ("DANZA MACABRA, LA (Castle of Blood), Italy/ France, 1964," MFB September 1967, p.139)

Either the reviewer misunderstood, or this is indeed based on Poe, but I cannot find any reference to this. Poe never wrote a story called "Danza Macabra," or any such variation. He certainly never wrote a story about a man staying in a haunted castle for a bet. There are some claims online that this is based on Poe's story "Night of the Living Dead," but there is no such story. The use of Poe as a character in the framing device is something of a red herring which may have misled audiences into believing that what they are watching did originally come from his fevered imagination. 

The dismissive review from MFB is easy to understand: by 1967 horror cinema had moved on from the stately, composed black and white gothic ghost story and was heading to the more explicit, full-blooded and realistic word of Rosemary's Baby (1968, Roman Polanski, USA: Paramount Pictures Corporation/ William Castle Enterprises), released in the UK in early 1969, and the real Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero, USA: Image Ten), released in the UK in late 1969. Had Castle of Blood been released in 1964, it may have received a more welcome reception. The film is recognised now as one of Margheriti's finest, with one historian admiring "its atmosphere, stylish direction and skilful delineation of volatile themes." (McCallum, L. 1998, Italian Horror Films of the 1960s: A Critical Catalog of 62 Chillers, McFarland: Jefferson, NC, p.61)

The Classic in Kilburn circa 1945, since demolished. Photo from Cinematreasures.org
I have managed to find one listing for Castle of Blood. It was playing on a late-night double-bill with Revenge of Frankenstein (1958, Terence Fisher, UK: Columbia Pictures/ Hammer Films) at the Classic in Kilburn, on Notting Hill Gate in early January 1971. The show started at 11pm, and was a great Gothic double-bill. We can only dream now of finding cinemas with that kind of programme! Incidentally, earlier that day were screenings of Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969, Ken Annakin/ Sam Itzkovitch, UK/ France/ Italy: Arthur Conn/ Basil Keys Productions/ Champion) and The Italian Job (1969, Peter Collinson, UK: Oakhurst Productions), demonstrating this was clearly a second-run cinema, and was definitely my kind of place.

Whilst watching it began to dawn on me that the hoary old narrative device "stay in a haunted house/ castle as a wager" most likely comes from the Grimm's tale 'The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,' first published in 1819's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales -- Grimms' Fairy Tales), no. 4. I love that story; it borrows liberally from the already established Gothic tropes of The Castle of Otranto (1764, Horace Walpole) and The Monk: A Romance (1796, Matthew Gregory Lewis), and combines them with the childlike glee of the haunted house as fairground attraction. The story even comes with a ride through a spooky castle on a moving bed, which "rolled on as if six horses were harnessed to it, over thresholds and stairways, up and down." 

'The Haunted Castle' by David Hockney, 1969. Part of a series for "The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear."
Effectively the Brothers Grimm invented the ghost train, which in this context is particularly relevant because the other thing which Castle of Blood brings to mind is Disney's classic ride 'The Haunted Mansion,' which first opened in 1969, but had been in development for a number of years. Like 'The Haunted Mansion' this film features distorting portraits, eerie distant waltz music, disembodied laughter and enough cobwebs and candlesticks to make every spook and ghoul feel right at home. Our hapless hero Alan meets a sympathetic ghost, much like the "Ghost Host" of the ride, and he is forced to witness the last moments in the lives of the castle's previous occupants, which includes couples waltzing around the hall and the arrival of a bride and groom on honeymoon. 'The Haunted Mansion' builds its narrative around a tragic bride, and features an amazing ballroom scene with waltzing ghosts. The castle has long, foreboding corridors and a crypt through which Alan attempts to escape, leading to the cemetery. The way out from 'The Haunted Mansion' involved having to go through the crypt and into the cemetery, which features grasping tree branches and corpses swinging from above. All that is missing from Castle of Blood is a possessed crystal ball and singing ghouls atop the gravestones. Of course I am not saying that Disney ripped this film off, but the similarities seems more than just a coincidence. The ride was in development from 1961, but did not open to the public until 1969, giving the developers plenty of time to catch all the ghostly movies they could for ideas.

I have been obsessed with this ride since I was a child, when my grandparents had the soundtrack album and a super 8 film of the ride itself. I listened to it obsessively, pouring over the images in the accompanying gatefold album, so to recognise elements of it in this film was a real treat.


Like most of the entries on this blog so far, this was a first-time watch for me, and I absolutely adored it. Castle of Blood has leaped up my rankings to become one of my favourite films. It has everything one would want from a gothic horror tale, but with the added perversity of Italian exploitation which had only been hinted at in Roger Corman's Poe films, despite his reliance on psychoanalysis. Given fact that Margheriti was effectively a director for hire on this film, shooting at an astonishing rate, he could be forgiven for churning out something second-rate. Remarkably he demonstrated again that he could make something incredibly creative and atmospheric in such conditions, which would become something of a hallmark for him just a couple of years later when he made all four Gamma One films in a year. According to some sources Margheriti himself was somewhat dismissive of this film, calling it "boring." He seemed to have incorrectly attributed its perceived failings to the fact that it was black and white, and attempted to remedy the problem with a shot-by-shot remake in 1971: Web of the Spider (Nella stretta morsa del ragno, Italy/ France/ West Germany: Paris-Cannes Productions, Produzione DC7, Terra-Filmkunst), featuring Klaus Kinski as Poe. I've not seen this either, but by all accounts it was an experiment which did not work, leaving Castle of Blood as the superior gothic offering.



Over at The Bloody Pit Rod Barnett and John Hudson discussed both films at some length, which is highly recommended. Web of the Spider has just been released on blu ray in America.


Castle of Blood (1964)